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THE COMPLETE normalman
Written and Drawn (mostly) by Jim Valentino

normalman was one of the first breakout indies of the early 80s, getting a nice push from its first appearances in the back of CEREBUS and then moving into its own title quickly after that. It was also one of the first real spoofs of the world of comics to get a toehold in the market, and set an example for many who followed afterwards.

The story setup is pure genius: in a parody of the Superman origin, an accountant on the planet Arnold believes his planet is about to explode, so he sends his only son in a rocket across the universe. However, two things go wrong: the planet doesn’t explode, and his son lands on the world named Levram (spell it backwards, folks), where every single person is blessed with a superpower. Except, of course, the now grown adult Norm. From there, he finds himself mixed up with characters such as Captain Everything, who gains whatever powers are required by plot twist; Sophisticated Lady, a former lady of the evening turned hero; Sgt. Fluffy, head of S.C.H.M.U.C.K. (it doesn’t stand for anything), and more. There’s also a pastiche of the Legion that provides for a great running gag, as they require a roll call before taking action, and there are so many members that it takes a year- and the gag runs over seven issues!

As the series progressed, normalman traveled through dimensions and time, allowing Valentino to scratch whatever itch he wanted to at the time. One stop had him meeting the “Smelfs”, a combo of the Smurfs and ELFQUEST. Another paid homage to Chaykin’s AMERICAN FLAGG. Did it all work? Heavens, no- in fact, plenty of it falls flat, even take in context for its time. But there’s an undeniable charm to watching the cartoonist figuring it all out. About halfway through the book, you can start to see Valentino begin to get a better grasp on composition and line on the page, and he puts a bit more focus onto his actual plot of Norm wanting to get home to Arnold, and the book picks up and becomes a much better read. Purpose goes a long way for normalman.

Bringing it all together, including some Norm appearance that came much later and ones that came in other creator-owned books back in the 80s, was a fine idea, and I’m glad to have it on my shelf. As someone who grew up in comics during the book’s era, it warms me to see classic work put in front of a new generation of readers to discover it.

 

Marc Mason

SAVAGE DRAGON ARCHIVES VOL.1-2
Written and Drawn by Erik Larsen

1200 pages. 53 issues. That’s what you get when you combine these two massive, phone-book sized collections of Erik Larsen’s book. Volume one contains the original three-issue miniseries and issues one through twenty-one of the ongoing series. Volume two contains issue twenty-two through fifty. That’s more than a third of Dragon’s published adventures, and more than enough to take a long look at exactly what the book has delivered to the reader over the years.

For starters, after reading these volumes, I no longer consider SAVAGE DRAGON to be a superhero comic. Yes, it is packed full of characters with superhuman powers, particularly its lead. But upon further review, this is a cop-driven soap opera. Dragon’s adventures come as part of his job as a Chicago policeman, the supporting cast started out as nothing but cops, and even later, when the book fills out, many of the super-powered characters become cops or at least get involved with them. Even when Dragon leaves the force, we still follow Chicago PD, and feel pretty assured that he won’t be gone forever. Why? Because this is a cop book at heart. General thoughts and observations:

Sex. There’s a LOT of sex in SAVAGE DRAGON. No way to deny it. But it’s the right kind of sex; the women Dragon sleeps with are strong and powerful, with minds of their own, and who take care of their own sexuality. In fact, Larsen slyly makes sure he can’t take too much grief for it; Dragon is so physically large that there’s no way he could perform in missionary position. His women are on top, literally and figuratively.

Suffering. I’m not sure anyone abuses his lead character more than Larsen. He’s dropped Dragon off a skyscraper onto a spire, impaling him. He’s had Dragon dumped into a smokestack, breaking every bone in his body. And when they all heal wrong, he has to have them all re-broken by another hero so they heal correctly. He’s blown off his arms. Sent him to Hell (literally). Killed his first girlfriend. Killed the mother of his child. Kidnapped his child. Marooned him in an alternate dimension. And killed him again. I mentioned above that this book is a soap opera. Read this paragraph again to see why.

Bodies. Larsen is somewhat notorious for drawing his women with nothing but beach ball chests, and that criticism holds up. I’m fairly certain that if you asked him what “a” cup meant, he’d tell you “a single cup.” But again, he tries to balance it. Dragon’s proportions are so out of whack that it borders on ridiculous. Plus, Dragon winds up naked so often, you’d swear he’s trying to get a role in Hollywood.

Universe. The most impressive thing about SAVAGE DRAGON as a series is the way that Larsen has created an enormous universe of characters and made them come to life on the page. The sheer level of creativity on display in these 1200 pages is nearly ridiculous. Early DRAGON saw an impressively fertile period for its creator, and he was putting his influences to work in ways that many talents never seem to be able to fully pull off.

Influences. Kirby is the most obvious, particularly when you look at the burst of creative juices out of the gate. But Walt Simonson plays every bit as large a part. There’s even a little Byrne (and a full issue tribute to Frank Miller along the way). But by the time DRAGON hits its 30s, Larsen becomes fully developed on his own, and you see less and less of his influences. And that’s another advantage of this black and white reprint format: Larsen’s art actually looks better without color. You get a stronger sense of his line, and his storytelling is more on display. I prefer these pages to the color versions (and I owned quite a few of them back in the day). Mainly, you’re reminded that, as this book developed, Erik Larsen really became a helluva artist.

I could go on, but ultimately, all you need to know is that these two books represent 1200 pages of really fun comics, and are more than worth the money to buy them. And as long as Larsen keeps putting them out, I’ll keep reading them. Pouring through them like this was a terrific experience, and I appreciated the opportunity.

 

Marc Mason

FELL VOL.1
Written by Warren Ellis and Drawn by Ben Templesmith

For transgressions unknown, Detective Richard Fell has been transferred to Snowtown, a mysterious borough separated from its city by a bridge over some very troubled waters. Snowtown has a reputation, and so does its police force: lazy and/or insane. The precinct captain is a pill popper. The secretary’s husband left her for a poodle. The coroner eats sandwiches while making the “Y” incision. Murders of the homeless go uninvestigated, and there’s no CSI to speak of. And the populace is even worse; drug dealers, hookers, a nun dressed in a Nixon mask, and a superstition that runs rampant- a symbol painted throughout the town that is meant to act as a ward against evil forces. Fortunately, Fell meets a woman who seems normal, bar-owner Mayko, but even then, she brands him with the symbol on their first date. Changing the world of Snowtown is going to take Rich a bit more effort than he realized.

FELL was named book of the year by me in my final list at Movie Poop Shoot, and for good reason: it’s not only insanely brilliant and entertaining, but it’s made some genuine changes in how people buy and create comics. The individual issues are only two bucks, and offer sixteen dense pages of story along with some back-matter that explains Ellis’ inspiration for the tales, and also some letters and such. The format has produced extraordinary sales, and has launched another book in the same format (Matt Fraction’s CASANOVA) that has seen similar success. So the stigma of books not selling or being profitable at a lower price has been shown to be bullshit- quality sells at any price, and publishers and retailers alike need to remember that.

This fine collection does not have the back-matter in it (as Ellis had promised when the book started- that stuff is a reward for buying the pamphlet), but that doesn’t matter. It’s the stories that matter, the characters that count. And this material is grade-A. Plus, you get the finest work of Ben Templesmith’s career along with it. FELL is as much of a must-buy book as you’ll see this year. Purchase it immediately.

 

Marc Mason

THE RIDE: DIE VALKYRIE #1
Written by Doug Wagner and Brian Stelfreeze and Drawn by Brian Stelfreeze

You just can’t keep a good nymphette dead, as Laci returns in the latest THE RIDE series. She blowed up real good the first time around, but hey, there’s always the past to mine, and that leaves plenty of room for Wagner and Stelfreeze to play with their gun-toting, mini-skirted Lolita assassin.

This time out we meet a three-girl gang calling themselves the Valkyries, and they’ve decided to go on the warpath in style: by stealing Becca’s dad’s 1968 Camaro. Cleo’s boyfriend has been cheating on her, and a road trip to kick his ass is required. Unfortunately, Becca’s father isn’t the owner of the car: a very bad man who has left something bad in the trunk is, and he’s not happy that it’s missing and in the hands of three girls who don’t know any better.

On the second track, we catch up with Laci and discover that she’s traveling with nuns. However, that doesn’t stop her from flashing a pair of rednecks who get a little fresh with her traveling companions (not just her underage goodies- it’s the gun sticking out of her waistband that she’s trying to draw attention to) and seeing more trouble develop as a man decides to rob the auto mechanic they’re using. You’d expect that, in issue two, she’ll have something to say about that.

THE RIDE always treads a fine line when it comes to Laci’s adventures, keeping them from going too far. And, in fact, we’ve gotten to know more about her as the books have progressed and she’s become an actual character instead of a brilliantly affected caricature. I think that Wagner and Stelfreeze have grown to love her in a sort of warped way and rather regret her demise in the first RIDE series. This one looks like another good time waiting to happen, and it should be very entertaining once Laci and the Valkyries meet up. The body count should be quite impressive, indeed.

 

Marc Mason


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